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Sunday, Feb 10, 2008


Now, over three decades and a billion jaded movie experiences later, it’s hard to explain the impact Jaws had on those who first experienced it. As any film fan will tell you, Universal didn’t expect much from the project. The book by Peter Benchley was indeed a bestseller, but it was a terribly tawdry read, more Peyton Place with sharks than a pulse pounding actioner. The director, a certain tenderfooter named Steven Spielberg, was more accustomed to doing TV films. In his naïve, novice way, he thought it would be simple to film the complicated story on the actual waters of the Atlantic Ocean. And then there was the cast - a relative unknown group of struggling stars that had solid credentials, but very little turnstile twisting face value.


All of that changed when the first few moments unfurled. By the time Chrissie was crunched up like so much skinny dipping granola by our unseen aquatic villain, audiences were indeed hooked. But it took a classic line delivered by an equally iconic actor to really sell the situation. Decked out in a season hiding slicker (the Summer film was shot in deepest winter), rugged tan, and lawman like glasses, Police Chief Martin Brody manned the Orca’s chum bucket with a sense of immature consternation. When boat Captain Quint demanded he keep the slurry line going while Oceanographer Matt Hooper manned the engine to go slow ahead, Brody was pissed. “Slow ahead?” the words echoed. “I can go slow ahead. Come down here and chum some of this shit”.


And with those words, viewers got their first major glimpse of 25 foot sea beast Bruce, the great white devil at the center of Jaws’ story. And at that moment, Roy Scheider became an instant member of cinema’s indelible icons. An already mature 42 when he made the proto-blockbuster, the seasoned stage and television actor was better known for his episodic work than his feature films. While he had starred alongside Gene Hackman in The French Connection and proved his tough guy mantle in 1973’s The Seven-Ups, it would be the timeless fish frightmare that cemented Scheider’s status. He never went on to top the popularity of his work in Spielberg’s popcorn perfection, yet his career would remain one of grace, gravitas, and gumption.


Born Roy Richard Scheider on 10 November 1932 in Orange, New Jersey, sports would dominate the future thespians young life. By the time he hit college, he was already the proud owner of a broken nose (the emblematic feature was his only reward after a stint in the Golden Gloves competition) and an adventurous spirit. Studying drama at both Rutgers and Franklin and Marshall, he spent some time in the military before finally foraying into performance. He even won an Obie Award (the off Broadway equivalent of a Tony) for his work in Stephen D, and was part of the New York Shakespeare Festival company. Early film roles, however, found him wallowing in grade-Z schlock (Curse of the Living Corpse) and minor supporting parts (Star! , Paper Lion).


In 1971, he was lucky enough to costar alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in the controversial award winner Klute. He was so memorable that, from there, William Friedkin hired him to play Det. Buddy Russo in Connection. That turn would earn Scheider his first Academy Award nomination. It would also threaten to typecast him as a tough as nails NYC cop. His role in The Seven-Ups, as Det. Buddy Manucci seemed to stress that possibility. But when he was tapped by Spielberg to play the transplanted New Yorker charged with keeping Amity Island safe from an unusual string of shark attacks, Scheider sensed something was about to change. Though Jaws would be one of the most grueling shoots of his entire career, it raised his professional profile drastically.

Marathon Man followed, the newfound A-lister standing astride acting maverick Dustin Hoffman as the sibling catalyst for all the diamonds and Nazis intrigue. He then turned down the role of Michael Vronsky in Michael Cimono’s Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, believing the script was illogical and implausible. Robert DeNiro ended up with the part. Reports claim that Universal was so angry about his stance and consternation (he even reneged on his contract) that he was forced to appear in Jaws 2 as punishment. It was not his most memorable work.


There was another film for Friedkin (the Wages of Sin remake Sorcerer), that second dip into dorsal fin territory, before the role that would come to redefine who audiences thought Roy Scheider was literally fell into his lap. When despotic stage director Bob Fosse found newly anointed Academy prima donna Richard Dreyfuss wanting in the role of Joe Gideon, he realized his egomaniacal epic needed a new leading man.  He immediately said “Goodbye” to his star and went looking for a singing/dancing reflection of his onscreen, autobiographical self. Oddly enough, he wound up picking Dreyfuss’ costar, the man who endemically complained about the rotten fish buffet he was forced to serve up.


Scheider was the first to admit that he was the completely wrong choice for 1979’s All That Jazz. While his resemblance to Fosse was frightening, he was practically tone deaf and had a self-described pair of two left feet. Weeks of intense training as well as careful song reconstruction in the studio resulted in one of the stand out tour de forces in the actor’s canon. Jazz would go on to become one of 1979’s most critically acclaimed films, and while the Academy chose to ignore it in favor of the family drama Kramer vs. Kramer (it got to share the loser’s circle with Apocalypse Now - not the worst company to keep), Fosse’s vision has since stood the test of time.


Oddly enough, it appeared as if Jazz jinxed Scheider’s fortunes. While he worked consistently (Blue Thunder, 2010, 52 Pick-up), he never eclipsed his performances from the ‘70s. In fact, by the end of the ‘80s, he was resorting to direct-to-video filler (Night Game) and off the radar independents (he was very good in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch). He would eventually reteam with Spielberg for a project about a futuristic underwater science vessel (SeaQuest DSV), but the F/X heavy TV drama failed to capture the imagination of audiences. It was back to the ‘Bs’ then, popping up occasionally in minor roles in mainstream movies (The Rainmaker, The Punisher).


Schieder never stopped acting, though. When the news of his passing at age 75 was released this past Sunday 10 February, the Associated Press quoted longtime friend Dreyfuss as follows:


“He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call ‘a knockaround actor’. A ‘knockaround actor’ to me is a compliment that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn’t’ yell and scream at the fates and does his job and does it as well as he can.”


He also never shied away from his past. When DVD arrived, allowing actors to offer their often unheard perspective on the films they appeared in, Scheider was there for interviews and commentaries. His insights into the directing styles of now legendary filmmakers (he once called Fosse “a real SOB”) added a great deal to the historical legacy of cinema. He also participated in the 2005 Jawsfest celebration which saw many in the cast and crew return to Martha’s Vineyard (where the film was shot) to share memories and memorabilia with fans. His contributions to the convention (captured by filmmaker Erik Hollander in the Scheider produced The Shark is Still Working) were a major part of its success.


As an actor and an activist (he championed environmental causes), Scheider was never known to back down. Even during times when the freezing waters off the Maine coast threatened to chill everyone to the bone, he jumped in and did his job. Rumor has it that Spielberg needed 75 takes of the sinking Orca to get said all important final shot right - and the angular actor was there for every one. While family and friends will remember a man who was dedicated in all pursuits that struck his fancy, those of us mulling middle age will never forget his turn as Chief Brody. If anyone could make it safe to go back in the water, this well meaning peace officer had the ability. Quint will just have to find someone else to do his dirty work now.


 


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Saturday, Feb 9, 2008


Stephen Chow is the Daffy Duck of Hong Kong marital arts superstars. Far more subversive than Jackie Chan ever was, and endearingly idiosyncratic compared to other cookie cutter action stars (especially the muscled voids of today), the 45 year old maverick stands as the genre’s biggest undiscovered superstar. Sure, Western audiences were wowed by the cartoonish chaos of 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, but Chow had been part of the Asian entertainment industry for more than two decades before making it big across the Atlantic. Of course, through our narrow, near xenophobic view of the modern motion picture, he seemed like an overnight sensation.


Yet Chow has been long regarded by film fans who’ve ventured beyond their local video stores standard selection. With such well received efforts as King of Comedy, God of Cookery, Forbidden City Cop, and From Beijing with Love, he’s accumulated quite a reputation in his native land. In fact, when 1992’s Royal Tramp won the box office that year, Chow had the distinction of starring in the other four films making up the top five as well. Considered by many to be an excellent example of the mo lei tau - or “makes no sense” - genre of Chinese comedy, this wacky historical epic spawned an equally outrageous sequel - Royal Tramp II and solidified Chow’s status as a top foreign funnyman.


Long unavailable on Region 1 DVD, The Weinstein Company and Genius Products, under their marvelous imprint Dragon Dynasty, are giving the English speaking world a chance to savor these significant works. Presented in a two disc special edition loaded with exceptional added content, Royal Tramp and Royal Tramp II strike the perfect balance between period piece and pantomime, amazing wire-fu fisticuffs and intricate, entendre-laced dialogue. Some may be shocked at the scatological humor. Others may marvel at the amount of violence. But in the end, few can question Chow’s abilities before the camera. He takes material that many in his native land feels cheapens both himself and their history and turns it into a sensational combination of machismo and mirth.

The first film, Royal Tramp, sets up Chow’s character perfectly. When a young emperor is declared too inexperienced to run his dynasty, he brings on four advisors to guide and counsel. One member of the group, a despotic old man named Obai, turns traitor, and begins a singular revolution against the throne. But this is not the only threat to the crown. Seems another group, called the Heaven and Earth Society, want to bring down the Quing dynasty and reestablish the Ming name. While working at his sister’s brothel, a young con artist/storyteller named Bo winds up helping the leader of Heaven and Earth escape harm. He agrees to work for the organization as a spy.



Once in the castle, he is taken in by head of the Eunuchs, Ha Da-Fu, and trained in the ways of kung fu. He befriends the emperor and his horny sister. He also runs into trouble with the Queen Mother, who may not be who she seems. As Obai gathers his army for attack, and the Dragon Sect’s operative plans her internal coup, Bo tries to balance his loyalties. Most importantly, everyone wants a book known as the 42 Chapters. In it is a secret so amazing that it could change the course of history. Of course, they look to their royal jester as a means of obtaining the tome. It’s just too bad Bo is busy wheeling and double dealing. After all, once a huckster, always a huckster.


Combining classic stunt choreography with Chow’s by then patented patter, Royal Tramp is an eye popping, rib tickling romp. It serves as notice for what a sprawling martial arts spectacle can be while simultaneously establishing a heretofore unknown level of verbal wit. Most fans of this type of film associate comedy with kung fu, stylized slapstick where the physical proffers the funny business. But typical to the mo lei tau genre, where dialogue is as important as daring-do, Royal Tramp delivers a high level of multifaceted farce. Chow is particularly good at this. His character is constantly conniving, making up stories to subvert potential danger (or death). He is outrageous and outsized, lowbrow and quick witted.


While many will assume that the R rating comes from the typical body blows traded by the characters, there is a great deal of blue humor present. Bo is introduced to the “penis” room by Ha Da-Fu, and one of the classic kung fu moves used requires the characters to literally feel each other up (no matter the region). Sex is suggested and never shied away from, and various Western swears (the F-bomb, the S-word) make regular appearances. There are online scholars who question the English translation of Chow’s lines. They insist that much of the nuance and copious wordplay used in mo lei tau is lost here. In addition, historians hate this film. While it’s based on traditional Chinese legend and literature (Tramp is indeed loosely taken from the wuxia novel The Deer and the Cauldron by Jin Yong), it does denigrate much of the heroic heritage.


Still, for pure cinematic enjoyment, for watching exceptional actors bring life to exaggerated actions, Royal Tramp is terrific. It never ceases to amaze while it continuously calls upon established Hong Kong elements to sell its scope. The opening attack on Obai is spellbinding, and the last act forest fracas offers nonstop thrills. Oddly enough, Chow doesn’t do a lot of martial arts here. He usually stands in the background, quipping away, while other genre icons - Ng Man Tat, Damian Lau, Elvis Tsui - take all the round house kicks and body blows. Visually stunning, thanks in no small part to directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung (you can see the latter’s work in Chinese Ghost Story here) and overflowing with memorable moments, Royal Tramp is a regal treat.



It’s no wonder there was a sequel planned. Thanks in part to Chow’s popularity, and the film’s suspected financial returns, Royal Tramp II was an inevitability (the movies were filmed back to back). This time around, Bo has been promoted. After defeating Obai and sending the fake dowager Queen back to the Dragon Sect, he feels secure in his position of power. But trouble looms on the horizon. Seems the angry underground wants the son of Ping Shi to marry the Emperor’s sister. So Wu Sun-Gwei, under the protection of the Dragons and evil military mastermind Feng Shi -Fan head out to meet with the royal family. Along the way, their efforts are thwarted by a one armed nun who uses her magical kung fu to protect her interests. It is up to Bo to defeat the various factions, woo those who want him dead, and learn the practicality of being the greatest non-fighter fighter in all of ancient China.


Far more action oriented than its predecessor (not that Royal Tramp I is a slouch in the stunt department), the return of fast talking Bo and his adventures in backdoor political intrigue is just as good as the original. Chow, now completely comfortable in the role, expands the character’s qualities by giving him more swagger in the persuasion department. Far less whiny than he was in Tramp I, Bo is now a man of means, and the anarchic arrogance he shows is ‘rich’ in hilarious rewards. When we first meet him, trying to persuade to young warrior gals to sleep with him as a means of warding off a fictional poison, the exchange is priceless. Similarly, the polygamy angle is used to great effect, especially when the spoiled princess from the first film is reduced to playing supporting concubine. Indeed, aside from the young emperor, who’s reduced to a mere plot device, the returning members of the Royal Tramp company do a terrific job of expanding on what was presented before.


Even more impressive are the fight scenes. Directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung seem bent on making these new confrontations as balletic and broad as possible. It seems like, ever time enemies meet, they begin a surreal dance that offers swordplay, spins, leaps, lacerations, kicks, cracks, and other unbelievable feats of physicality. Filmed in a manner that manages to protect both the fiction and the fighting, it is truly amazing. Sadly some will miss the nonstop verbal volleys of the original film. The tripwire dialogue is present, by delivered in dribs and drabs instead of in a steady stream. Running gags are used (a reference to respect being like water), and the same scatology that was present before is metered out in tiny little particles. The main emphasis of the narrative is on interpersonal intrigue, people playing off each other to formulate alliances, rivalries, and romantic couplets.


In fact, the Royal Tramp films do a fascinating job of combining the traditional with the up to date to create a crazy world where Chow’s mo lei tau can function freely. By following his flim flam man from whorehouse entertainer to court confidant, from leader of the rebellion to creator of reconciliation, the movies make a sincere statement about human nature as ever changing and challenging. The use of a mythical backdrop, with its ability to provide untold levels of magic, makes for a startling subtext. Equally entertaining is the way Chow channels contemporary values through old world routines. It represented something of a novelty for the conventional Hong Kong film industry. It’s also why many purists still dislike the Royal Tramp films.


It’s a sentiment seconded by commentator Bey Logan on his alternate DVD tracks provided. Offering both history and context for each film, these discussions provide a unique perspective on Chow’s career, his rise through the Shaw Brothers system, and how his popularity literally rewrote the Asian action film rulebook. Along with an interview with co-writer/director Ling, and the original theatrical trailers, we get a rather thorough look at how a desire to play dumb and lowbrow revitalized a dying genre, and how one man triumphed in the face of much criticism and social consternation.


For Stephen Chow, however, superstar celebrity was just a matter of time. Once he got his way, starting his own projects and infusing them with his special creative input, the sky was literally the limit. Cockier than most of his fellow filmmakers, willing to take chances that time and tradition would never consider critically viable, he made the combination of kung fu and craziness a winning fiscal formula. Now capable of doing virtually anything he wants (his latest effort is the kid friendly ET-like alien epic CJ7), the future looks very bright for Chow’s brand of buffoonery. Anyone interested in seeing where he started could do worse than experiencing the Royal Tramp collection. Both films are fine examples of the man’s amazing talent.


DVD
Royal Tramp


 
Royal Tramp II


EXTRAS



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Friday, Feb 8, 2008


Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.


Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order - triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it - including Arthur and Hex.



Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.


Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.



Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius - voiced with perfect gravitas by York - scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height - and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.


It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience.  There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic - and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies - and the fortunes of these filmmakers.



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Thursday, Feb 7, 2008

It’s clear that some filmmakers inherently understand the value of music in setting up the tone of their film. It’s a two way street, of course. The right selection of songs, or perfectly executed score, can turn the everyday into something epic, or the mildly amusing into a comic cavalcade. Yet there are times when, because of excessive ambition or smug self congratulation, the tunes take on a tainted life all their own - and the screen’s not ‘big’ enough for both the sonic and the storyline. Finding flawless examples of the former is far harder than locating mediocre members of the latter, basically because the meshing of music and movies is typically left to those (Scorsese, Tarantino) who know what they’re doing. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we’ll focus on a trio of soundtracks that truly understand the importance of sonics within the cinematic. They also reflect three of 2007’s best efforts.


Juno - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]


How does one match a movie built almost exclusively on quirk? Do you go for an equally eccentric collection of songs, or try and reflect the borderline precocious personalities of the cast? For director, and soundtrack producer Jason Reitman (with help from Peter Afterman and Margaret Yen), you do a little of both. Wisely, son of Ivan relied on Kimya Dawson and the idio-indie vibe left over from her work with the Moldy Peaches to propel the Juno soundtrack toward perfected mix tape nirvana. The selections here celebrate all that’s good about the pregnancy parable, exploring the tentative twee universe of adolescent sexual discovery with the down to earth worldview of its simple syrup heroine. Though it’s lacking the aesthetic cornerstone that drives our ‘with child’ champion - namely, old school ‘70s punk - it does pick through the last 40 years of music to find symbolic soulmates for the character.

Dawson’s work is delicious, a combination of lo-fi lollipops and angst fueled confessionals. “My Rollercoaster”, “Tire Swing”, “Loose Lips” and “So Nice So Smart” are all winners, all walking the fine line between imagined bedroom singalongs and full blown coffee house concertos. Similarly, the ‘main’ musical number, the Peaches pubescent love lament “Anyone Else But You” does double duty - functioning as both theme and last act truce between Juno and her boy joy Paulie. And while it would seem that tracks from established bands like The Kinks (“A Well Respected Man”), The Velvet Underground (“I’m Sticking With You”), and Sonic Youth (the Carpenters cover “Superstar”) would announce their obviousness and overstay their welcome, the way Reitman handles them in the film makes their presence more than mandatory here. Besides, anyone wise enough to give Mo Tucker’s lunatic lullaby a place on their playlist deserves unfettered kudos. The Juno soundtrack is exactly like the film itself - clever, original, and just a tad out of step with normalcy.


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


For a composer, it must be an impossible dilemma to overcome. How does one write songs for a specific actor to sing while also creating music that’s supposed to be the result of said performer’s specific character? Luckily, the minds behind the wacky wintertime comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story took a hands on approach. Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan, along with collaborator/comedy savior Judd Apatow, made sure that star John C. Reilly had some sonic substance to work with, hashing out lyrics and stylistic ideals before calling in actual musicians to bring them forth. Members of the Candy Butchers (Dan Bern and Mike Viola) as well as established artists like Van Dyke Parks and Marshall Crenshaw used the sketches and outlines as the basis for their clever contributions. The results become one of the best parody albums ever, matching considered classics from Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, note for nutty note.

As the movie is meant to mimic the recent biopic of Johnny Cash (among others, including Ray and The Buddy Holly Story), we get several man in black moments. The title track is terrific, a perfect amalgamation of message and mock bravado that comes across as iconic and idiotic. Similarly, early narrative numbers like “Take My Hand” and “(Mama) You Gots to Love Your Negro Man” take stylistic satire and brave bad taste to new levels. During the middle of the movie, when Reilly’s character is experimenting with sound and inspiration, the Parks’ penned psychedelic epic “Black Sheep” reminds us that rock and roll is almost inherently a self-parody to begin with. Between the faux folk protest of songs like “Dear Mr. President” to the late in life resurgence stated in “Beautiful Ride”, this is a score that celebrates the best - and excesses - of a life as a musician. It’s just too bad that the film and the album failed to connect with audiences. Like other examples of the genre, however, it’s destined to become a signpost of cult cool in the years to come - just like another similarly styled heavy metal spoof. 


Into The Wild - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]


For close to two decades now, Eddie Vedder and his post-modern Bob Seeger Everyman routine have kept Pearl Jam a relevant, exciting rock and roll entity, long outliving the band’s neo-nostalgic grunge groundwork. Chosen specifically by writer/director Sean Penn to take on the onerous task of complementing the story of Christopher McCandless and the young man’s self-imposed exile from the world, the famed frontman delivered a collection of amazing tracks. They provided the perfect sonic backdrop to deal with the film’s complex emotional layers. They functioned as celebration and sermon, the All-American instinct toward wanderlust balanced against the needs of Penn’s reinvented road movie. The combination struck a chord with listeners as well as critics, many who saw the acoustic based material as instrumental in the film’s success. Of course, the old coots at the Academy didn’t get it. Vedder missed out on a sure thing Oscar nod (and probable win) when his work was deemed too “song oriented” to be considered a proper score. Huh?

Revisiting the tracks recorded, there is clearly a nomadic troubadour feel to what Vedder has created. Early tracks like “Setting Out” and “Far Behind” are statements of separation and distance, while later numbers like “Rise” and “The Wolf” provide insight into the sense of self-discovery (or delusion) and freedom that McCandless was striving for. Vedder is in fine voice, his balladry belying years as the aural accessory in Pearl Jam’s punk-poseur guitar sound. Yet he also shows with a pair of collaborations - dueting with Sleater-Kitty’s Corin Tucker on the Gordon Peterson/Indio track “Hard Sun”, polishing the Jerry Hannan penned “Society” - that there is a real sense of artistic community in the man. Along with Michael Brooks, who provided the more ambient cues for the film, Vedder’s work on Into the Wild feels like one massively important part of the much bigger motion picture. It verifies the faith Penn had in the musician, and the man’s own belief in his amazing muse. The results speak for themselves - over and over again.


 


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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2008


They say that successful movie marketing is an art. If it is, it’s one of the blackest. Nothing against advertisers in general, or the creative individuals forced to turn turkey loaf into Thanksgiving, but creating buzz is a bifurcated saber. On the one hand, you have the easy sell, the material or individual with inherent pull and established popularity. All you have to do is say the name, suggest the situation, and potential revenue streams find their inner customer clicked over into “sold” mold. It’s the very definition of a no-brainer - the mindless, lemming like “Yes” to a Madison Avenue SOS.


But then there are the harder sells - the untested talent, the complicated project, the demographically indeterminate subset. For these amorphous entities, these hard to compartmentalize and conceptualize beings, no amount of Q rating returns or focus group grading can provide a window into its retail viability. For the copywriter or the art director, the minds paid to pull this unreasonable rabbit out of its wonderland-like hole, it’s all about the angle, the dirty back road in. If they can just find some path to the PR Promised Land, it’s another unexpectedly successful campaign and a key to the unisex Executive washroom.


So it’s clear that when faced with the prospect of selling Malcolm Lee’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins to a comedy weary (and wary) viewership, Universal’s crew was more than a little flummoxed. The upcoming comedy has a cast comprised of several recognizable and established actor/stand-ups (Martin Lawrence, Mo’Nique, Cedric the Entertainer), a complementary list of fine A-list names (James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, Michael Clarke Duncan), and a few scene-stealing surprises (Michael Epps) to flesh out its funny business. With a script that successfully balances the broadest of physical and shtick humor with lots of familial heart and insight, the studio must have sensed it had a winner on its hands.


But how to get that across to a public poised to hate almost anything that purports to make them laugh. After a decade of gross out gag fests, a combination of limp ideas and even lamer execution, anything without the name “Apatow” attached to it was seen as a risk. Add to that the clear ethnic angle and suddenly, you’re stuck. Between Tyler Perry’s “Go with God” restaged plays, and the formulaic African American anarchy which substitutes crudeness for something clever, the selling points were stuck between a social Scylla and Charybdis. So how did they resolve this dilemma? They didn’t. They took the incredibly easy way out and decided to position this film as a scatological slice of slapstick.


Frankly, nothing could be farther from the truth. In a year already overloaded with unexceptional fare, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a surprisingly rich and rewarding experience. Certainly, Mo’Nique and Cedric trade on the material that made them famous, and director Lee resorts to outrageous physical humor to drive some of his less important points, but at the oversized soul of this movie is a clear message about embracing who you are, forgiving people for the past, and learning to accept the love…and lesser qualities, of those you grew up with. Pointed, insightful, and slightly sloppy around the edges, it’s a wholly entertaining and enjoyable work.


Yet to watch the trailers, you’d think it was nothing but tawdry toilet humor, riotous roughhousing, and lots and lots of hard-R retorts. Of course, much of that comes directly from the comedians cast. All of the professional stand-ups present are notorious for their potty mouthed performances, and throughout the course of the film, several euphemisms and other expletive like comments are heard. But for every bit of blue humor, material one imagines resulted directly from the adlibbing tendencies present, Lee made sure to include a moment of clarity, a sequence where common sense takes the place of crudeness. And the pratfalls are saved for a couple of over the top sequences where our filmmaker lets the anarchy get out of hand. But it’s hardly the main point of the movie.


No, the marketers of Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins obviously believed that audiences - specifically viewers of color - were not sophisticated enough to embrace a full blown family comedy. Even the PG-13 rating reveals a limited use of the FCC’s favorite slang (the F-bomb gets dropped once). Like politicians who believe that pandering is the best way to tap into the electorate, Hollywood is convinced that certain racial profiling perfectly mirrors their merchandising. A slacker flick has to have indie rock and some petulant pop culture quips. A RomCom must retread some Tin Pan Alley classic and contain at least one shot of our stars making cow eyes at each other. And apparently, African Americans need sophistication spoon fed to them in vaudevillian like volleys of mugging.


Or maybe the motive is even more sinister. Maybe, in order to sell the film beyond those predetermined to see it, Tinsel Town takes the intolerant approach. While someone more scholarly and sophisticated will have to determine if the Roscoe Jenkins trailer is racist (instead of merely misguided), it is clear that to an audience unfamiliar with the work of those in the cast, stereotypes abound: the big mouthed black woman with shaving cream on her face; the fast talking hustler; the “white” acting prodigal; the various references to other culturally specific signposts. Like a visual reference guide to the experience about to be offered, the trailer takes a road no one should travel and traverses it with hamfisted foolishness. 


Again, the question is why? Why is the film being marketed this way? And again, what does that say about the intended audience on both sides of the social spectrum? If Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins wasn’t so obvious in the way it addresses its product, if the movie wasn’t so different than the non-character based chaos shown in the advertisement, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But Tootsie didn’t trade exclusively on its man in drag dimension, and Knocked Up acknowledged that there was more to its scatological tirades than farts and frat boyishness.


Yet somehow, when the skin tone shifts, so does the subjectivity. Instead, everything gets processed through a veiled worldview that’s long stopped representing the community at large. There is true diversity in the African American community, an element that Malcolm Lee’s movie clearly embraces. Too bad the rest of the entertainment arena can’t see it. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is indeed a good movie. Perhaps it’s time Hollywood relied on truth, instead of trickery, to enlighten its customers. Imagine how novel that would be.


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